Critics of the Aaup Report

Academe, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview
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Critics of the Aaup Report


In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society.

-Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 29(2)

The American Association of University Professors ought to he commended for taking this timely and valuable initiative, promoting an open debate on academic boycotts and their bearing on the principle of academic freedom. In this paper, I shall limit myself to critiquing the AAUP's position on academic boycotts and academic freedom as expressed in its Committee A report "On Academic Boycotts."

From my perspective, three sets of problems arise from the AAUP stance on this issue: in a reverse order of importance, conceptual, functional, and ethical. Together, they pose a considerable challenge to the coherence of the AAUP's position on the academic boycott of Israel, and they call into question the consistency of this position with the organization's long-standing policies and modes of intervention in cases where its principles are breached. Most important, by positing its particular notion of academic freedom as being of "paramount importance," the AAUP effectively, if not intentionally, circumscribes the scope of the moral obligations of scholars in responding to situations of oppression when carrying out such obligations conflicts with that notion.

Conceptual Inadequacy

Among other problematic aspects, the AAUP's conception of academic freedom appears to be restricted to intrastate conflicts, mainly "governmental policies" that suppress the "free exchange of ideas among academics." This leaves out academics in contexts of colonialism, military occupation, and other forms of national oppression where "material and institutional foreclosures ... make it impossible for certain historical subjects to lay claim to the discourse of rights itself," as philosopher Judith Butler eloquently argues.1 Academic freedom, from this angle, becomes the exclusive privilege of some academics but not others.

Moreover, by privileging academic freedom as above all other freedoms, the AAUP's notion contradicts seminal international norms set by the United Nations. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights proclaimed, "All human rights are universal, indivisible . . . interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis."2 Finally, by turning the free flow of ideas into an absolute, unconditional value, the AAUP comes into conflict with the internationally accepted conception of academic freedom, as defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which states:

Academic freedom Includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction. The enjoyment of academic freedom carries with it obligations, such as the duty to respect the academic freedom of others, to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views, and to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds.3 (Emphasis added.)

When scholars neglect or altogether abandon their said obligations, they thereby forfeit their right to exercise academic freedom. This rights-obligations equation is the general underlying principle of international law's position on human rights. It also was one of the foundations of the AAUP's initial view of academic freedom, as expressed in its 1915 Declaration of Principles, which conditioned this freedom upon "correlative obligations" to further the "integrity" and "progress" of scientific inquiry.

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